Liverpool fans, picture your biggest celebrity crush: rumour has it that Jürgen Klopp has just offered you the football equivalent of a wink and a smile from your dream girl (or boy). Whether he’s only teasing or not remains to be seen.

It’s been an encouraging week for Liverpool all things considered, even allowing for Thursday’s tough Champions League draw. Not only did the Reds continue their perfect start to the season with Saturday’s 2-0 win over Burnley, an opponent who had taken four points from six on their previous two visits to Anfield, they also managed to arrive back into the dressing-room with all of their limbs and faculties intact. As Joe Gomez would no doubt attest, that’s always something of a victory in itself against Sean Dyche’s honestBurnley (translation: they won’t piss down your leg and tell you it’s raining, they’ll pry open your mouth and aim for the tonsils).

But arguably the most promising sign for the season ahead came later that night on Match of the Day, when the combined analytical might of Gary Lineker, Jermaine Jenas and Danny Murphy tried to make sense of Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp’s post-match comments concerning Burnley’s physical approach to the game and appeared to suggest that a drum I’ve been banging for years might finally be about to bear sweet music.

Before I get to that, some context. Given that the Clarets have worn their shithousery as prominently as the colours on their jersey since their return to the Premier League in 2016, Klopp certainly wasn’t trying to pass Burnley’s physicality off as news. Instead, and more pertinently, the German focused on how some of their tactics on Saturday may have been facilitated further by new guidance handed down to Premier League referees this season to let the game flow rather than repeatedly blowing for fouls, no doubt spurred on by the record number of penalties awarded during 2020/21 and the associated reaction in the football media.

We always had to be ready for a proper fight and we were. You saw these challenges with [Ashley] Barnes and [Chris] Wood and Virgil [van Dijk] and Joel [Matip]. I’m not 100 per cent sure if [officials] are going in the right direction with these decisions. It’s like we’re going 10 to 15 years backwards. The rules are like they are, but you cannot defend these situations. That’s how it makes the game really tricky.

I don’t think it’s right, but I cannot decide these things. I heard about leaving the game [to] flow, but now we have these situations. The second goal from Brentford [against Arsenal on the opening day] must be a foul – you cannot clip the arm of the goalkeeper and say, ‘that’s football’. I think maybe we have to think about it a second or a third time.

The message now is let the game flow, but nobody exactly knows what that means. I like decisions that favour the offensive team, that’s fine. But we have to stick to protecting the players. We cannot deny that. If you like that sort of thing, watch wrestling.

Now, the Liverpool manager didn’t specify the exact style of wrestling to which he was referring, but examples like the one shown below involving Jóhann Guðmundsson and Diogo Jota indicate that perhaps he had WWE superstar and fellow Germanophone Walter in mind. I mean, oof.

The motive behind Klopp’s comments is really not a mystery. His chief concern at challenges like this one (which, incidentally, didn’t draw a foul on Jota much less a yellow card for Guðmundsson) is not so much that Burnley are enthusiastically continuing in their quest to make Tony Pulis’ Stoke City circa 2010 look like an Instagram reel of kittens in pink bows playing with balls of wool — as mentioned, that story has been told ad nauseum over the past five years. It’s not even that the likes of Guðmundsson have now taken to channeling their inner Brock Lesnar every time they take to the pitch.

The issue, which is a new one, is that referees like Mike Dean on Saturday have suddenly started to act like their WWE counterparts too, namely by contriving to look the other way at crucial moments in order to safeguard the spectacle for the likes of Roy Keane, who dismissed Klopp the following day by saying that “You have to be physical. That’s part of the game I love.”

Of course it is. This is a man who once tried to clean the mud off his boots using Gareth Southgate’s intestines in an FA Cup semi-final, who assaulted Erling Braut Haaland’s dad in a Manchester derby and then revelled in the retelling of the incident in his first autobiography, a man whose 13 career red cards in English football put him ahead of such luminaries of violence as Vinnie Jones and Duncan Ferguson on that particular list. In other news, rain is wet.

This is the point at which Keane could have usefully imparted the knowledge gleaned from an 18-year playing career, namely by telling us all what his aggressive, ambitious, ruthless younger self would have done in the event that a similar diktat from above, to blow the whistle less in favour of letting the game “flow”, had ever been imposed upon referees during his time. Better yet, what would his Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, have been telling his players in the dressing-room and on the training pitch? How would that group of great white sharks have reacted at the equivalent of a few drops of blood in the water, I wonder? (Spoiler: my god, lives would have been lost!)

Wouldn’t that have been an interesting, informative conversation to have? Instead, Keane, like all former Manchester United players currently making a living as pundits, eschewed a valid point in favour of sticking it to Liverpool. What a legend.

It hardly needs to be said, but what do we think the kind of one-size-fits-all approach to officiating we have seen so far this season is going to do for the (necessary) deterrent factor that has always resided in a referee’s ability to punish foul play, including repeated fouling, by awarding free-kicks and issuing yellow and red cards? Strengthen it? What is it going to do for the delicate balance that exists between the justified physicality of a contact sport (as Keane said on Sunday, “When you are playing against the better teams, you do have to be physical”) and serious foul play? Where does “physical” step over the line and stop being acceptable?

Is it when the referee says so? Well, Mike Dean laughably thought that the incident above which saw Jota grabbed and thrown to the ground was perfectly acceptable. Does that automatically make it so? The likes of Keane would be out of a job if it did, considering they spend about 75% of their time obsessing over refereeing decisions. The question is, did Dean legitimately think that was a fair challenge or was he simply applying the instructions he and his colleagues have been given in broad brush strokes and dispensing with any nuance, thereby effectively denying himself any discretion whatsoever to call a foul a foul? How do we think that’s going to work in the long-term?

More importantly, will the knowledge that referees have been instructed to let the game “flow” allow teams like Burnley, whose jockstraps have already long been enchanted by the spirits of Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Jon Walters, to push the boundaries even further in the knowledge that they are now likely to get away with more, thereby widening the safety net if they stray over into the territory of serious foul play? Or will they simply ignore this glaring opportunity to gain a competitive edge, in the process living up to Keane’s description of them as “a pretty honest team“?

I don’t definitively know the answers to these questions, although I could hazard an educated guess that of course they’ll fucking do whatever they can get away with! Dyche’s eventual response to Klopp included this couple of gems:

The way I look at it, you have a referee there of some 800, 900 games [in Mike Dean] who didn’t book anyone. So it is quite bizarre when you look at it like that, just factually, how he could suggest there were some untoward challenges...My worry is he’s questioned that teams shouldn’t do everything within the rules to win the game, which we clearly did because there wasn’t a single card given out.

What Dyche seems to be suggesting here is some kind of refereeing infallibility. Anyone who has watched football for more than five minutes would immediately recognise that as disingenuous nonsense, and it will be exposed as such just as soon as the next refereeing decision goes against Dyche. I must remember that the next time Mo Salah or Sadio Mané are accused of diving for a penalty: if the referee gave it, it must be correct. Sean Dyche told me so.

Jürgen Klopp isn’t offering any answers to those questions either, but this is the conversation he is trying to start. Pundits like Keane and his Sky colleagues have a different agenda, namely promoting football as an entertainment brand and selling subscription packages to consumers of the product, so they’re coming at this from a wildly differing perspective to Klopp and certainly not one that’s focused on player welfare.

Where they will chime in is six or eight months from now, when two players suffer broken legs or busted eye sockets over a single weekend and they proclaim that the time has come for the rules to be stiffened once again. Instead of listening to an experienced Premier League manager calling it in advance, they will ignore the warning signs and wait until the situation has reached the point of maximum melodrama before they say a word, in the same way that they ignored years of worsening ownership situations amongst England’s top clubs only to finally draw the line at a European Super League and started cry-arsing about the Glazers and FSG then, too late to be worth a damn.

Klopp specifically referenced tackles by Barnes and Wood on Van Dijk and Matip last Saturday, but he could have also easily mentioned Guðmundsson on Jota or, even more pertinently, James Tarkowski on Alisson. After repeatedly pushing the boundaries of fair play, and often obliterating them, by impeding the Liverpool goalkeeper on corners during meetings between the two sides since the Brazilian’s arrival in England, the big defender decided to throw a flagrant elbow at his opponent’s face during Saturday’s game as Alisson went full-stretch to claim a ball in the air. Again, the referee’s whistle never blew, and the live commentary team (on BT Sport this time) made little of the offence.

Had the ball trickled into the net, which it almost did, what kind of a bizarre precedent would that have set for the season ahead? Well, the one it potentially has set isn’t great either, is it? The ingrained mindset that has evolved over a number of years, and may have even had a couple of grains of truth to it, namely that goalkeepers are over-protected, has now apparently given way to them being fair game for flagrant interference (an elbow to the face in Alisson’s case, a clipped arm in Bernd Leno’s vs. Brentford on 13th August) without the prospect of a whistle being blown.

The following day, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær appeared to tacitly agree with Klopp’s position by comparing the effect of the rule changes to rugby, much to the amusement of another of Sky’s football oracles, Paul Merson, who called the comments “an embarrassment“. What’s infinitely more embarrassing, Paul, is that the above challenge would be given as a foul in rugby union, due to the fact that the player is in the air and any contact could potentially change the direction of his momentum, make him lose control of his body and crash dangerously into the ground. That’s gravity, a scientific fact that Sir Isaac Newton began espousing as far back as the 17th century. It doesn’t change across eras or sports, and yet football at the dawn of the 2021/22 season seems to be oblivious to it, even with an obvious elbow to the face added in for good measure. Now, that’s embarrassing.

It suddenly seems a very long time ago indeed since the scares over raised elbows after John Fashanu broke Gary Mabbutt’s face in 1993 and Ben Thatcher sent Pedro Mendes to the hospital in 2006, both of which happened during the Premier League era. Klopp’s words (“It’s like we’re going 10 to 15 years backwards“) are chilling in that context. Something tells me that this season may be about remind everyone exactly why the protection of goalkeepers evolved in the way it did over the years.

* * *

In any case, Lineker, Jenas and Murphy, who didn’t explicitly consider any of the specific incidents outlined above and weren’t on duty to consider the comments from Solskjær the following night (and earn a truly obscene amount of money from the British taxpayer), had a different explanation for Klopp’s observations.

Is it managerial games here, going into fixtures ahead?” Lineker asked Jenas, reasoning that “all we’re talking about here is stopping the nudges of players and the diving over, that’s what we want to stop isn’t it, I don’t think we’re talking about serious foul play”. In other words, he simply couldn’t fathom any way in which Klopp was being upfront and honest on this point.

“We’ve kind of had a look, we watched the game, we didn’t see any of those challenges,” Jenas responded, having obviously missed the two flagrant incidents outlined in detail above, “so we’ve come to the conclusion this is gameplaying, you know he’s thinking about Chelsea next week, he’s putting things in referees’ heads, you know the great managers have done it for years, and he’s just doing the same things.”

Murphy finished by claiming that “Van Dijk and Matip, they actually did well with the battle, they enjoyed it, they weren’t moaning“. This statement, of course, missed the point entirely, possibly deliberately so. Van Dijk and Matip “did well with the battle” because they are world-class footballers who also happen to be 6’4″ and 6’5″ respectively. Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood on their best day couldn’t bully or intimidate them. Even Romelu Lukaku, a hulking, genuinely world-class centre-forward, will struggle to do so tomorrow, and I’ll be surprised if he manages it.

They weren’t moaning? Please. On the pitch, they’re two of the moaniest fuckers at the club (in a good way). Go back to the Jota gif above, look who’s in the background with his arms outstretched looking at the referee. Look at the gif below of Ashley Barnes launching himself at Matip and dragging him to the ground. It looks to me like the big centre-back is having a big old moan afterwards, as he is well-known to do. Off the pitch, well, they don’t have to moan, they have a manager to do that for them. As a Liverpool supporter, the only time I’ve ever heard Matip talking was in a skit for LFCTV. He doesn’t moan publicly because he doesn’t really speak publicly.

They enjoyed it? I’m sure they did. I’m also sure that Van Dijk was enjoying his last Merseyside derby before Jordan Pickford launched himself at his knees and put him out of action for the rest of the 2020/21 season.

The latter point is exactly what Klopp is concerned about. Lineker’s view that “all we’re talking about here is stopping the nudges of players and the diving over, that’s what we want to stop isn’t it, I don’t think we’re talking about serious foul play” is spectacularly naive in that context. If referees had grown unable to differentiate a dive or a nudge from foul play under the old regime (and they most certainly had), what in the world makes anyone think that they’ll be able to do it now? They won’t; the only thing that will materially change is the consequences of their ineptitude, broken bones instead of broken play. But then, Lineker is a man who still insists on calling this wretched 21st century version of football “our beautiful game”, so he’s either naive or breathtakingly cynical.

I can see that denying football teams any breathing space whatsoever to be physical with each other is likely to result in a sanitised game that resembles a non-contact sport like basketball. I’ve complained about that myself over the years. At the same time, for the reasons outlined earlier, cutting professional footballers and managers too much slack is destined to result in pushing the boundaries of physicality into dangerous territory, especially if you do it as a rule. It’s like leaving a classroom of teenage boys unattended (speaking from personal experience there). The former situation could make for some slightly more boring football matches; the latter will likely result in serious injuries eventually. That’s what we’re dealing with as we meander our way into the early weeks of the 2021/22 season.

I am tempted, though, sorely tempted, against all reason, against all considerations of self-respect or common sense, to actually believe Lineker and Jenas on this one, together with their BBC colleague Alan Shearer, whose explanation for the comments of Klopp and Solskjær in an article written for The Athletic this week was “managers deflecting and insinuating, prodding and testing everywhere as they search for marginal gains”.

I mean, I’m well aware that ordinarily if any of them told me it was raining I’d grab the sunscreen and burn all my umbrellas. But the thought of a Liverpool manager actively trying to influence referees in the way they are claiming, particularly one as charismatic as Klopp and with a club behind him that has rejuvenated itself into a global giant over the past decade, well that’s just tantalising. In fact, I have to think it would be the football equivalent of Stevie Nicks circa 1976 greeting my younger self (I’m a very happily married man these days) wearing nothing but a guitar and a smile and suggesting that the two of us spend the weekend drumming up some hot-blooded inspiration for the next Fleetwood Mac album.

Why? Well, because I’ve been watching successive Liverpool teams for over three decades now, even the one that became English, European and World champions and averaged 98 points across two seasons under Klopp not too long ago, voluntarily ignoring a vital competitive edge at which their rivals have excelled. To be fair to Lineker, he name-checked two of them towards the end of the video above, Ferguson and José Mourinho, although I’m not sure about Arséne Wenger (claiming not to see any foul his team committed for two decades represents pretty weak “managerial games” compared to the other two). But the former pair, absolutely.

And it’s not that Liverpool were always challenging those teams for the top prizes over the years, in fact they mostly weren’t, but I nonetheless lost count of the number of times I saw those other clubs regularly benefit from crucial 50/50 (or even 30/70) decisions in their favour or a few minutes of unwarranted injury-time or a dodgy penalty as their managers and players, not coincidentally, continually harangued and manipulated and intimidated officials into giving them a crucial advantage when it mattered. Oh I hated it at the time and was happy to say as much, but as the years have gone by, as the game has grown ever more cynical, I have long since begun to yearn for Liverpool to do exactly the same.

That’s because it has always felt like Liverpool, by contrast, whether it was an occasional title race or the more typical top-four challenge, have meekly accepted the denial of their own ambitions at the hands of incompetent referees who wouldn’t be capable of making correct or even balanced decisions if you offered them the Stevie Nicks scenario outlined above as a reward every time they got one right. Consequently, my sense has long been that of all the top clubs, none is easier to make a decision against than Liverpool, and my ongoing desperation for that to change has regularly left me feeling like Cooper trying to communicate with his daughter towards the end of Interstellar.

Jenas, if his conclusion about Klopp’s motives is accurate, and I truly hope it is, may have acknowledged that“the great managers have done it for years” but he didn’t go into detail about what that actually entails (to be fair to him, he didn’t have enough time even if he had wanted to). We’ll get into that, but the truth is that officials are grifted from the moment the two teams set foot on the pitch for any Premier League fixture. The reason for that is to gain an advantage, conscious or otherwise. It could take the form of simulation (diving), making the referee think he’s seen something that he hasn’t, but it could be something as simple as two opposing players both appealing for the same throw-in, which we see happening many times during every game.

It can also take the form of psychological conditioning, which is what Jenas is getting at when he says that Klopp is “putting things in referees’ heads”. Referees are human beings and are therefore susceptible to the same psychological motivators that any of us are, whether it’s fear, vanity, insecurity, mental weakness, hubris, the promise of reward, or simple laziness. The best managers have long understood that.

Carnies would call them “rubes”; the aforementioned pro-wrestling business, which also evolved out of carnivals, called them “marks” historically, although the exact meaning of that term has evolved over time. It essentially means a sucker to be scammed or manipulated, usually for the purposes of making money. In modern elite football, the referee is the rube. The mark. The sucker to be scammed, in this case to win matches or at least to increase your team’s chances of doing so, but it needs to be systematic to yield the best results.

I honestly thought that Klopp’s comments on Saturday represented a genuine expression of concern for the welfare of his players, not least because he has never systematically sought to influence referees during his time at Liverpool (I can’t speak for his Bundesliga days). I still do, but what do I know? What if Lineker, Jenas and Shearer are right, that his words do indeed represent the start of a concerted attempt to influence referees, to scratch and claw for the “marginal gains” that will give his team the edge in an ever-competitive Premier League title race? Well that being the case, he’ll get no complaints from this Liverpool supporter. In fact, the immortal words of Walter “Heisenberg” White pretty much capture my feelings at the prospect perfectly:

Long may it continue, because that would honestly be like a new multi-million pound signing for the club. My only bit of advice to Jürgen, a relative novice in this area, would be to select the right mentor to emulate. I have just the man in mind.

* * *

Roy Keane was hot. Steaming. So was Jaap Stam. And, er, Nicky Butt. Come to think of it, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham weren’t too happy either. Or Denis Irwin, who at least seemed to be trying to bring some decorum to proceedings. Luckily for them, the 61,267 in attendance at Old Trafford (the largest English league crowd in 23 years) meant that nobody but referee Andy D’Urso will ever know what was said, but the vein in Keane’s left temple spoke volumes as to the tone.

The Manchester United captain was the only one booked for the incident, which took place in the 72nd minute of his team’s 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough on 29th January 2000, following the award of a penalty to the visitors. Keane and Stam would subsequently express remorse for their behaviour, which had seen D’Urso backed into a corner of Old Trafford as more than half of the home side’s players aggressively chased him across the pitch. But the reality is that this was an envelope that United had been successfully pushing for some time.

For proof, look no further than the historical significance of the referee’s decision that day: this was the first penalty-kick awarded to a visiting team in the league at Old Trafford in 2,248 days, or just over 6 years, since Norwich City’s Ruel Fox converted from the spot in a 2-2 draw on 4th December 1993. That’s well over half of the 1990s where not a single opposition penalty had been awarded in a particular Premier League stadium, an extraordinary statistic regardless of how good that particular team had been. By the time Danny Murphy notched from the spot for Liverpool on 24th April 2004, he became the first visiting player to score a penalty at Old Trafford since Fox, a period of over 10 years. The only other spot-kick awarded during that time was Juninho’s anaemic effort on that afternoon in January 2000.

In this context, D’Urso had committed something of a revolutionary act by the standards of the time, one which those Manchester United players very likely interpreted as some kind of heresy. West Ham United striker Paolo Di Canio’s autobiography would be published 18 months later and contained the memorable line that to get a penalty at Old Trafford, someone “needs to take out a machine gun and riddle you full of bullets, and even then there would be a debate about whether you were shot inside the area or just outside.

Part of this aura was vested in the club and the institution itself, of course, undeniably one of the biggest in the world; part of it in the stadium, which continues to have the highest capacity of all English clubs; and part of it in consecutive groups of players who were hard-bitten winners to a man. Mostly, though, it flowed through all of those elements directly from a singular source, namely the manager.

Alex Ferguson had arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986 and, like Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, would have to wait until the end of his third full season in the job for his first trophy, the FA Cup in 1990 arriving just 44 days quicker than the German’s European Cup in 2019. Having done the league double (home and away) over Liverpool in finishing 11th during the 1986/87 campaign, he brought his team to Anfield again towards the end of the following season, this time to face the irresistible Barnes/Beardsley/Aldridge vintage that would later be given its own Goal of the Season competition by Match of the Day.

United left with a 3-3 draw, and by the end of the 1987/88 season they had improved to a very creditable 2nd place in the table, behind only Liverpool on 81 points. The game itself meant little in the context of the title, with Liverpool sitting a comfortable 11 points ahead of their rivals with two games in hand. It is probably most memorable today for a wonderful Steve McMahon goal to make it 3-1 that BBC commentator John Motson called “one of the best goals of the season, even by Liverpool standards”, and Ferguson’s comments afterwards that were significant in the context of what was to come in subsequent years.

Speaking to reporters, he complained bitterly that decisions had gone against his side and claimed it was no surprise that managers “have to leave here choking on their own vomit, biting their tongue, afraid to tell the truth”. Whatever the accuracy of his claims regarding Anfield, those words are an exact description of what Old Trafford would soon become for visiting teams across two decades, in a way that suggests there may have been a large dollop of envy hiding beneath the obvious contempt of his comments that afternoon. Whatever else it was, it suggested an active consciousness of the possibilities afforded by institutional power, particularly in terms of how it can affect referees.

It wouldn’t be long before the sight of Ferguson angrily tapping his watch at officials became a regular sight at football grounds up and down the country. Coincidentally or not, his team began to receive (often significantly more than) their fair share of injury-time when they needed it, the most famous example being the seven minutes added at Old Trafford in April 1993 for Steve Bruce to score a vital 96th minute winner against Sheffield Wednesday as Manchester United took control of the 1992/93 title race, their first Premier League of many under Ferguson.

United supporters may well protest that the seven minutes added were technically correct, but I’ve been watching Liverpool for 35 years and I never recall them getting anything remotely near seven minutes when they needed it, warranted or otherwise (I remember, fairly infamously, six minutes being added at Anfield in a European Cup semi-final against Chelsea, but it came with the home side absolutely desperate for the final whistle to blow).

Another prime example is the 4-3 win over Manchester City in September 2009, when referee Martin Atkinson indicated 4 minutes of injury-time and Michael Owen subsequently struck the winner…in the 96th minute, with the final whistle eventually arriving on 96:58. The scene was rendered uglier still by the sight of Ferguson laughing it up with fourth official Alan Wiley within earshot of his opposite number, Mark Hughes, moments later. The total time added was, of course, at the referee’s discretion, but I’m damned if I can remember Liverpool ever getting 75% longer to find a winner “at the referee’s discretion” (although I do remember quite a few blowing up early over the years).

One of the reasons Liverpool never got similar treatment was because they didn’t have a vocal, intimidating presence in the dugout demanding it, whether “it” was merely fair treatment for his team or a little bit more than what was fair because, fuck it, why not? He was managing the most powerful club in England, after all. A trend began to emerge where Manchester United, in a large part because of their immense quality, consistently scored late goals, many of which arrived within the outsized injury-time periods being awarded to them by referees. This became so regular an occurrence that the media subsequently coined the term “Fergie Time” to describe it.

Ferguson’s influence over officials wasn’t restricted to the time added for stoppages. Over the years, as the silverware accumulated and United’s global stature mushroomed, it became increasingly difficult for visiting teams to get decisions at Old Trafford (conceding only one penalty across a period of 10 years tells its own story here). It certainly wasn’t unheard of, but it needed to be really clear, like Luke Chadwick’s red card for hauling Liverpool’s Vladimir Smicer to the ground in December 2000 or Gary Neville’s mistimed lunge on Steven Gerrard in April 2004.

By the time of the D’Urso incident in January 2000, Ferguson had been in the job for over 13 years, roughly halfway through his tenure, and his influence was already unparalleled. José Mourinho, during his first season in England, characterised the situation like this following a League Cup semi-final at Stamford Bridge in 2005:

What I saw and heard and felt at half-time made it easier for me to understand a few things. Maybe when I turn 60 and have been managing in the same league for 20 years and have the respect of everybody I will have the power to speak to people and make them tremble a little bit.

The referee controlled the game in one way during the first half but in the second they had dozens of free-kicks. It was fault after fault, dive after dive. The ball was in the crowd for quite a long time and yet we still only had two minutes of injury-time.

But I know the referee didn’t walk to the dressing rooms alone at half-time. He should have had only his two assistants and the fourth official with him but there was also someone else.

This tallies with comments that would subsequently be made by Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez some 4 years later:

We know what happens every time we go to Old Trafford and the United staff. They are always going man-to-man with the referees, especially at half-time when they walk close to the referees and they are talking and talking.

His then-counterpart at Chelsea, Luiz Felipe Scolari, readily agreed:

I understand. I understand very well. I understand that, sometimes, when we play [at Old Trafford] and at Stamford Bridge, I know what happens.

This is not to say that these managers were acting out of anything other than self-interest. Mourinho himself would cause the retirement of referee Anders Frisk the following month after making accusations following Chelsea’s Champions League defeat to Barcelona. All three were primarily looking to redress the balance of influence that was a key weapon in the Ferguson arsenal (and, in the case of the Spaniard, shielding his captain who had been charged with affray 12 days earlier).

Interestingly, though, of the few high-profile figures within the English game who actually chose to engage with the thrust of Benítez’s comments rather than summarily dismissing him as a loon, one was a former referee, Graham Poll, who agreed with the Liverpool manager in rather telling fashion:

Rafa Benitez has articulated what referees have been thinking for years – that Sir Alex Ferguson can say what he wants about them and the FA will allow him to get away with it.

What Poll is talking about here are comments like this:

It’s an indictment of our game that we see referees from abroad who are as fit as butcher’s dogs. We’ve got some good referees in our country who are fit. But he [Wiley] wasn’t fit. He was taking 30 seconds to book a player; he was taking a rest. I think he’s taking a rest, writing down the names on his card and taking 30 seconds for a booking, it’s ridiculous.

So said Ferguson about referee Wiley in October 2009, comments which, coincidentally or not, arrived a little over 6 months after the same official awarded Liverpool a penalty kick during a 4-1 win at Old Trafford. Another former referee, Jeff Winter, suggested in the aftermath that “I think referees will be so incensed about this that Sir Alex may find that United no longer get the benefit of the doubt on certain decisions”, which I think speaks volumes about the mindset of officials refereeing Manchester United over the years.

Now, let’s be clear here: Ferguson didn’t retire having won 28 major trophies in English football simply because of his ability to influence referees. But in the same way that people used to say Peter Schmeichel was worth X points per season to United on the strength of his saves alone, there is little doubt that an extra couple of minutes here or a few 50/50 or 40/60 decisions going a team’s way or a dodgy penalty given (or, conversely, a stonewaller not given to the opposition) can make a vital difference come the end of the season. It certainly contributed to those 13 Premier League titles.

The influence of his players, his enforcers on the pitch, mattered just as much, of course. Like many successful teams they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in order to extract the maximum advantage for themselves. They went too far at Old Trafford that day in January 2000, so much so that even Ferguson had to tell them to cool it, and they would never go 6 years without conceding a penalty at home again. But the impetus always came from the manager. Ferguson correctly identified that match officials are human, with all the usual weaknesses, and he made it count to his advantage.

So if Jürgen Klopp ever wants to emulate someone in this regard, it should be Ferguson, although hopefully he never starts banning journalists for asking questions he doesn’t like. Given that Manchester United’s 13 Premier League title remain well-thought of in a sport that recognises only victory and rarely the manner of it, there would appear to be little reason for him not to. It has to be systematic, though, from the top down. That’s the key: question everything before, during and after a game, make the referee doubt himself, overload his senses.

Unfortunately Klopp has never shown any obvious proclivity for doing anything of the sort. Perhaps that’s why one of the most explosive teams in Premier League history once went 424 days without being awarded a Premier League penalty at home?

* * *

Andy Robertson was hot. Steaming. And with no crowd noise inside Anfield, we were able to hear exactly what Liverpool’s left-back said to referee David Coote:

How the fuck is that not a penalty? You didn’t see fucking anything. You didn’t see anything the whole game apart from fucking booking them in the last minute. Fuck me. What’s the point in having you in the middle? What’s the point in having you? Fuck me. Honestly.

Spoken like many a watching Liverpool supporter during the previous two hours, I would imagine. His full-back partner, Trent Alexander-Arnold, also reportedly had his say: “How the fuck was that not a foul on [Robertson] by the way? Fuck me. If it’s not a penalty it’s a fucking foul then. The contact echoed around the fucking stadium!

The primary source of their anger was an incident that had occurred in the 84th minute of another game at Anfield between Liverpool and Burnley, namely the 1-1 draw on 11th July 2020 that ultimately prevented the home side becoming the first team in England’s top division to achieve a 100% home record across a season. The moment was described on the Express match tracker as follows:

84: Eh? Not sure what’s happened there. Liverpool should have had a stonewall penalty as Johann Berg Gudmundsson slides through Andrew Robertson inside the box and doesn’t look to have touched the ball. Referee isn’t interested and VAR doesn’t intervene.

For the sake of clarity, there is no reference in the IFAB laws of the game as to whether the defending player has touched the ball, although if Guðmundsson (that name again!) did make any contact it was certainly nominal at best. All that matters is whether the referee deems the challenge to have been careless, reckless or excessively forceful. Careless, this most certainly was. And later that night, although they didn’t get a chance to specifically look at the incident (they ran out of time, apparently), Match of the Day host Lineker clarified as the show concluded that “we thought it was a penalty” too, with Arsenal legend Ian Wright’s voice in the background emphatically confirming “it was a penalty”.

They could have also referenced another penalty shout in 68th minute of the game, described by the Express as follows:

68: No?! Well that looked a blatant penalty at first glance. James Tarkowski puts his arm on Mohamed Salah inside the box and the winger hits the deck. Nothing given. Perhaps looked worse in real time.

I have to say, I’m really not sure about that — Mo Salah, a winger? Surely he’s more of a wide forward, at least for Liverpool? But the rest of the description was pretty accurate, and Tarkowski’s (that name again!) challenge on the Egyptian definitely fell into the hackneyed “seen ‘em given” category. A forearm in the back that causes your opponent to lose his balance as he tries to get on the end of a through-ball would certainly appear to meet the dictionary definition of a push, and Burnley could have had little argument if the referee had pointed to the spot. As with the Robertson incident later, however, Coote simply waved play on.

Liverpool were in action again four days later (15th July 2020) at the Emirates. In the 67th minute of a surprise 1-2 defeat, Arsenal defender Kieran Tierney looked to pull Takumi Minamino back as the Liverpool substitute prepared to shoot from the edge of the 6-yard box. The Guardian match tracker described the incident like this:

Tierney has a handful of Minamino’s shirt, causing the Liverpool man to stumble but not fall. Minamino wants a penalty, and may have got one had he gone to ground. But the referee waves play on, and VAR doesn’t intervene. Klopp is livid, Minamino confused. But it would have been a soft one.

There are three things that are interesting about this incident, and they are neatly encapsulated in the extract above. Firstly, the acknowledgement that “Tierney has a handful of Minamino’s shirt, causing the Liverpool man to stumble” and that Minamino might have been awarded a penalty kick “had he gone to ground”. Secondly, the proposition that “it would have been a soft one”, despite the previous acknowledgement that the Arsenal defender had fouled Minamino. And lastly, the description of the Liverpool manager as “livid”, which he most certainly was in that moment.

All of which, to me at least, paints a scarily accurate picture of a defender breaking the rules and getting away with it because of the honesty of his opponent’s reaction, while a lazy-minded referee is happy to make a decision based on the assumption that if the player didn’t go down, then it can’t have been a foul. On the sideline, meanwhile, a manager rages against the unfairness of yet another penalty decision going against his team, as well as the fact that he is powerless to do anything about it. Vivid imagery flowing forth from mere words on a page. Kudos to you, Scott Murray.

Minamino may have been “confused” by the referee not pointing to the spot in that game against Arsenal, but he was (and remains) relatively inexperienced at this level. He will soon learn the golden rule that, as an elite attacker, you go to ground on contact from a defender in the box unless the odds of a goal are overwhelmingly in your favour. This is something the most famous referee of them all, Pierluigi Collina, once allegedly told England’s Michael Owen during a crucial World Cup game vs. Argentina (“I said ‘referee it’s a penalty’ and he said ‘Michael to know you have to go down to win the penalty.’ He told me you have to go down, so I thought next time I get touched I’ll go down and I did and he gave me a penalty.”)

All Minamino needs to do is remember that experience, then go watch some footage of the Premier League’s finest attackers, past and present, for additional inspiration: Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Agüero, Bernardo Silva, Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Didier Drogba, Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Arjen Robben, Eiður Guðjohnsen, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Thierry Henry, and yes, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suárez, Mo Salah and Sadio Mané too. Every single one of them does it, or has done it.

Of course, given his inherent foreignness and the club he plays for, the Japanese attacker can never hope to be celebrated or labelled “clever” for winning his side penalties in this way. There is a virulent strain of schizophrenia that afflicts the English football media on the issue of diving, one that this blog has already considered, and Liverpool players have consistently tended to find themselves judged by a more puritanical standard than many of those mentioned above.

The level of moral panic is often so great, in fact, that distressed citizens such as Martin Tyler, Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Pep Guardiola find themselves with no choice but to come forward and voice their concerns regarding the “reputation” of players like Salah and Mané, even as they remain tight-lipped on the virtue, or otherwise, of others. Whether the resulting climate of McCarthyite insinuation, and often outright accusation, has any effect on the impressionable minds of the nation’s referees, well, who’s to say? But to quote Ward Bond’s Father Lonergan in The Quiet Man, “I can’t say it’s true, and I won’t say it’s not. But there’s been talk.”

[Which is, of course, partially an excuse to post this wonderful gif]

So even if he does master this element of the game, the most Minamino can hope for is to eventually become the subject of a witch hunt like Suárez, Salah, Mané, and even poor old David N’gog in the past (Gerrard was largely excused because of his nationality). However, while certainly not a pleasant experience, the bile that comes his way will only serve as ironclad proof that he’s succeeding in his job of helping Liverpool to win, which, amongst large swathes of the English football media, is considered a far worse crime than diving in any case. So it’s definitely something for him to aim for.

These two games from the closing weeks of the 2019/20 season ultimately meant little in the greater scheme of things, although the additional four points those penalties might have brought Liverpool would have given them a couple of records that would certainly have been nice to have (the first team in the history of English football’s top division to finish a season with a 100% home record and the highest points total of 102). But the most important prize had already been secured regardless of these incidents, and the Reds ended the season 11 days later crowned champions by a margin of 18 points.

Nonetheless, the Robertson decision should have been obvious; Salah and Minamino, by virtue of the fact that both looked like clumsy collisions between two players where others were also present, were perhaps a little less clear-cut. None of that even matters. The point is that Liverpool weren’t given the benefit of the doubt on any of the three incidents. Significant contact was made with their players inside the opposition penalty area three times in five days and two referees felt quite comfortable in waving play on.

This was part of an ongoing theme for Liverpool. Far from being isolated cases, the Burnley and Arsenal incidents described above were business as usual for a club that, at one point, went a staggering 424 days without a league penalty being awarded at Anfield between 28th October 2017 and 26th December 2018. This was a team that scored 63 league goals in 27 home games and reached a Champions League final in the interim period, but they couldn’t buy a Premier League penalty at home. Coincidentally or not, when a penalty was finally awarded (correctly) for a foul by Newcastle United’s Paul Dummett on Salah, a media inquisition followed.

Taking the sides who have typically challenged for the top-four since Klopp’s arrival in England during the 2015/16 season and going right up until the end of the 2020/21 season, and using goals scored as a measure of a team’s attacking prowess (I don’t have data for touches in the box for that period, and possession is a more flawed metric than goals for this purpose in my opinion), Liverpool have been half as likely to be awarded a penalty as Leicester City and Manchester United, despite scoring around 100 goals more, around two-thirds as likely as Manchester City, who beat them to the 2018/19 Premier League title by a singe point, and have had around the same likelihood as Arsenal and Tottenham despite scoring 67 and 42 goals more respectively.

TeamPenalties AwardedGoals ScoredRatio
Leicester City513581:7
Manchester United493751:8
Manchester City495371:11
Penalty data compiled using Covers 2015/16 – 2020/21.

In other words, Liverpool had to score 15 goals to be awarded a penalty on average, while a couple of their rivals (Leicester City, Manchester United) have only had to score 7 and 8 respectively. Manchester City have had to score 11, although given that they are the only team to have outscored Liverpool over this period, that ratio is perhaps more understandable.

As mentioned above, touches in the box is not a metric that is readily available for all six seasons, but a statistic posted by The Tactical Times towards the end of the 2019/20 campaign was even more damning. Judging by the statistically-significant sample included below, during their title-winning season Liverpool were substantially less likely than both Manchester clubs to be awarded a penalty when they arrived inside the 18-yard box. This, remember, was coming off the back of a season where the title was decided against them by a single point.

And that’s just penalties awarded: what other decisions regularly went in favour of the Manchester clubs that didn’t for Liverpool, be it injury-time duration or penalties not given against them? Something is wrong, and it’s been wrong for a very long time, certainly going back through the reigns of Klopp, Brendan Rodgers and Rafael Benítez, and likely further than that.

* * *

Now, I’m not suggesting for one second here that referees are corrupt or making incorrect decisions on purpose. Nor am I expecting preferential treatment for one team over another or, perish the thought, a big club over a smaller one (Liverpool and Burnley a good example). And I would certainly never expect the automatic award of a penalty as a matter of course, whether there is contact in the box or not.

Believe it or not, I have plenty of sympathy for officials, far more than the likes of Sky and their ilk have ever shown, and I regularly wonder aloud to anyone who will listen why any human being would put themselves through such an ordeal on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, paycheck or not. As infuriating as they can be, they have to make tight calls in real time on incidents that take place at a breakneck pace. I have no doubt that they at least try to make correct decisions, typically against a backdrop of 22 players trying everything in their power to gain an edge, legal and otherwise. There is certainly no evidence of corruption, regardless of what is said in anger on social media, in front of television screens or in grounds up and down the country.

Some of their decisions do end up being objectively wrong, and a proportion of them fall into the grossly incompetent category, too consistently for comfort in the case of certain individuals. Nonetheless, it should be recognised that this is not an easy job, and the way VAR is currently constituted in the Premier League doesn’t help them a great deal. If it isn’t a handball decision or an offside call that can be empirically measured with superimposed lines, both of which VAR officials (referees themselves, of course) still manage to get wrong, there is rarely the appetite to overturn incorrect on-field decisions that require any level of subjectivity. Like penalties.

And the truth is, this is how television companies want it. Many of the big, split-second judgments referees make will inevitably be questioned. Indeed, forums like Sky Sports and BT Sport depend to a large degree on refereeing decisions to drive their post-match content, with biased pundits endlessly replaying what are often highly subjective incidents from a number of different angles that were not available to the referee, slowing them down, drawing lines on the screen, and even then not coming to a consensus. If every decision a referee made was correct, they would certainly have a lot less to talk about.

Additionally, managers and players might have to front up to the limitations of their own teams rather than hiding behind contentious decisions in order to disguise poor performances. A great example of this is Wolves captain Conor Coady’s invective against VAR back in December 2019 following Liverpool’s 1-0 win at Anfield. On one of the rare occasions that season when VAR did (correctly) overturn an open-play decision by a referee, Coady was ostensibly frustrated that he couldn’t argue with him about it: “Anthony Taylor is a great fellow to speak to, but I ask a question and I don’t get an answer”. The subtext was that Wolves’ ability to intimidate, bully and soften Taylor up for the next big decision that needed to be made in the white-hot heat of the moment was severely impeded, meaning that a potential edge for the visiting team was lost.

It’s not as though Dean (at Anfield last Saturday), or Taylor, Coote and Tierney with the incidents mentioned above during the 2019/20 season, committed capital crimes for which they needed to be punished, or sins that required some kind of absolution. Mistakes happen in a fast-moving game, and English football referees have long proven themselves to be consistently inept at their job. No judgement here, it’s just a fact. Watch any Premier League game on a given matchday and it will be clear to see. In this context, the four of them could be said to have simply remained true to form.

Any team can be the the victim of this ineptitude, of course, not just Liverpool. That is, unless they take steps to put some order on events, to make sure that the small number of 50/50 judgement calls that occur in games favour them more often than they don’t. The truth is that Liverpool have rarely, if ever, done that, and certainly not under their current manager. If Lineker and Jenas think otherwise, they’ve obviously been watching a different man than I have over the past six years.

Let’s go back to the examples from July 2020 again. Although Klopp did highlight Burnley’s tactics from corner-kicks that went unpunished for the second season in a row in this fixture, Coote joining Andre Marriner in allowing Alisson to be manhandled freely, it was half-hearted (“The referee let lots of challenges go so it was clear that if the ball comes into the box it was dangerous. They did what they are good at and I respect that”). Klopp also admitted that he hadn’t seen the Robertson incident at the time and preferred instead to focus on his team’s missed chances after the game (“It’s our fault because we should have closed the game but we didn’t doWe were angry with the referee but we have to criticise ourselves first for not finishing the game”).

In doing so, whether out of some inherent honesty or a conscious attempt to not be seen as a bad loser, the Liverpool manager effectively handed the referee a free pass for at least one decision, and probably two, which had cost his team victory. And although he did appear to be “livid” in the moment, Klopp similarly ignored the Minamino incident after the aforementioned Arsenal game, instead focusing on his own team’s defensive errors (“If you make these types of mistakes you can’t win a football game in the Premier League, or you need to be really lucky”). Consequently, I’m sure that both Coote and Tierney slept soundly in their beds that night and felt no sense of foreboding whatsoever the next time they rocked up to Anfield.

The reality is that Klopp’s apparent post-match magnanimity in both instances earned him nothing in the short-term either. The media were largely happy to follow his lead and focus on Liverpool’s missed chances at Anfield, turning the spotlight in particular on centre-forward Roberto Firmino who had yet to score a league goal at home that season (he would end up with one), and the mistakes by Van Dijk and Alisson at the Emirates, rather than the latest in a long line of questionable penalty decisions that had gone against his side, particularly at Anfield. One of the most egregious and potentially damaging, of course, being the clear foul on Naby Keita in January 2019 that resulted in Liverpool dropping two points against Leicester City in a title race ultimately decided by one (Martin Atkinson the offender on that occasion).

Elsewhere, there was little credit handed Klopp’s way by supporters of other clubs, who predictably excoriated the manager and his left-back for having the temerity to even breathe in the referee’s direction after the Burnley game, an action the self-important hypocrites have presumably witnessed their own players doing hundreds of times over the years. I would bet my house that what Robertson said was no different to many similarly heated exchanges over the years between match officials and the likes of John Terry, Roy Keane, or any number of irate players following a disappointing result, the main difference here being the lack of crowd noise in the stadium. Most of all, Klopp’s focus on the role played by his own players in both games didn’t magically restore the five points that had been dropped. Those stayed very much dropped.

This is not to say that there wasn’t much to admire in the manager’s respective post-game outlooks: of course there was. Klopp would have immediately been focusing on the elements of each performance that were within the control of his players and the coaching staff to address. This approach is hugely admirable and very much in keeping with his comments after another contemporaneous setback, the 0-4 defeat at Manchester City on 2nd July 2020:

I was not in a too good mood after the game. I was not in a really good mood when I went to bed. I was not in a really good mood when I woke up. And then I arrived at Melwood and I was in a really good mood, and I asked myself “Why?”, and I know — ah — here we change the things.

From the manager’s point of view, these were fine margins that could be improved by work on the training ground, by sharpening the minds and calibrating the finishing of his players. The mistakes of match officials, on the other hand, continue to be something that he appears to view as random events and therefore something to be tolerated, given that they are outside of his team’s ability to control.

But are they? Alex Ferguson once said of Anfield, in a season where Liverpool won their tenth league title in 16 years, that it was no surprise that managers “have to leave here choking on their own vomit, biting their tongue, afraid to tell the truth”. He then embarked upon a quest to make Old Trafford an exact facsimile of Anfield in its pomp, where the Kop was apparently so influential that it could “suck the ball into the net” according to Bill Shankly and force referees into giving decisions to the home side according to others. Do refereeing decisions like those outlined above go against every team? Yes. Can they also be minimised as much as possible? Absolutely.

The surprise and the concern regarding statistics such as those outlined earlier is that Liverpool have continually ignored a potentially vital edge, one that is especially important given the spending power of their rivals, Jack Grealish (£105.75m), Romelu Lukaku (£103.5m) and Jadon Sancho (£76.5m) the latest examples of that. The margins are likely to be tighter than ever during the 2021/22 season. European champions Chelsea and last season’s Premier League runners-up Manchester United should absolutely challenge for the title, while City, league champions in three of the last four seasons, have added Grealish to a squad already bulging with quality and trophy-winning experience. There will be no 18-point title processions this time. Marginal gains could land the big prize.

Perhaps the Liverpool manager knows that and is finally willing to dabble in the darker arts? Certainly, having competed directly against Bayern Munich for 7 years in Germany, Pep Guardiola for 7 years (and counting) in two different leagues, and reached 4 European finals in his career, Klopp should already know only too well how football works at the very highest level. My money would still be on the most likely conclusion, that the German can simply see where the game is heading under the new rules and is outlining his legitimate concerns, but who knows? Not me, not the Match of the Day panel, and not anyone else except for Jürgen Klopp himself.

Let the games (maybe) begin.

Update (21/12/21):

Jürgen is still at it. It’s a good thing that there are honest referees like Paul Tierney around to protect the integrity of the game. Either that, or the Liverpool manager is just not very good at influencing officials. Better yet, perhaps Jermaine and Gary’s “mind games” never existed in the first place and Klopp is just as helpless as everyone else at the random, happenstance logic of PGMOL and their members? I know which option I would choose.

Ah well. I guess Stevie just wanted to be friends after all.

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